In a case watched by information technology employers, a US federal judge last week admonished Microsoft for requiring temporary workers to sign contracts excluding them from any judgment that might result from a pending class-action lawsuit.
Calling Microsoft’s behavior “outrageously arrogant,” US District Judge John Coughenour ended last week’s court hearing in Seattle by urging Microsoft to “do the right thing” and reconsider the contract language.
Officials for Microsoft, due back in court next week, said the company will carefully consider the judge’s statement. The outcome could have a ripple effect on IT, which has leaned more heavily on temporary workers in the past few years. The case also has raised questions about what constitutes employment vs. contract work.
At issue is a statement that was recently added to Microsoft’s temporary personnel contracts, which specify that temps don’t get employee benefits. The added language says the contracts are binding even if a court rules that the temp workers were Microsoft employees by common-law standards.
“This is a direct attack on the legal rights of workers,” said Marcus Courtney, co-founder of the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, a Seattle-based group that includes workers in the class-action suit.
Still, Microsoft disputed that its intention was to make contract workers give up any judgment awards from the lawsuit. “We wouldn’t and couldn’t do that,” said spokesman Dan Leach.
Microsoft employs an estimated 6,000 temporary workers.
It lost a 1993 case brought by temp workers. Last year, another group of temps filed the suit now pending.
Esther Roditti, a New York labor attorney, said the type of contract Microsoft recently presented to its temps might be allowed by some courts, as long as the company didn’t coerce employees to sign it. “Employees must consent to signing it,” Roditti said. “Unfortunately, what constitutes consent is murky.”